Since Brandon Palaniuk doesn’t look at the Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings, it might seem counterintuitive to ask him who he thinks has the best shot to win in 2023, but the reigning champ does have favorites.
The top 10 on the leaderboard are separated by 89 points. As in recent years, the race could be five wide as the Bassmaster Elite Series comes down the stretch, and it could go down to the wire with another photo finish.
“It’s close enough that it definitely can,” Palaniuk said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes down to the last day.”
Last year as Palaniuk stumbled in the last event, Brandon Lester and Chris Johnston both took AOY leads on BassTrakk, but Palaniuk remained calm in the storm. He filled his limit late on Day 2 to climb up the Mississippi River leaderboard and with a solid Day 3, secured his second AOY trophy.
In the 53 years of awarding the title, 26 pros have won B.A.S.S. AOYs, and Palaniuk became the 12th to win more than one, pairing his trophy from 2017 with last year’s.
Since none of the top 10 this year have an AOY, odds are a 27th pro will hold the coveted trophy, and Palaniuk believes any of those 10 is capable of getting on a roll and winning.
Kyle Welcher leads the race with 511 points. He’s one of only three Elites who have made the two-day cut in the first six events, accumulating 511 points in the process. A seventh at the Sabine leapfrogged him from fifth to the top after starting 72 points behind Brandon Cobb, who is now second 12 points behind him.
John Cox, who has also made every two-day cut, stands third with 483 points, Tyler Rivet is fourth (467) and Drew Cook rounds out the top five with 456 points. The next five are Will Davis Jr. (449), Patrick Walters (437), Drew Benton (435), Hunter Shryock (434) and Jay Przekurat (422).
While Przekurat is from Wisconsin and Shyrock cut his teeth in Ohio, the rest of the top 10 are more accustomed to southern largemouth fisheries than the northern smallmouth events that close the season.
“I know Welcher is leading, and Cobb is second, and outside of that, I don’t know,” Palaniuk said. “I don’t look at points. I didn’t know where I was (last year) and I don’t care where I’m at.”
Giving him the lowdown on the leaders, Palaniuk heard one name he believed would be in the mix from the start.
“At the beginning of the year, I picked Drew Cook to win AOY, if I couldn’t win it,” he said. “To me, in that group, the two that stand out the most are Welcher and Cook.
“Welcher is just a different breed. He had a tough year last year. I don’t know what happened, but to me that was a really rare thing. It didn’t really show his true potential. I think he wants it so bad. I think he understands what he needs to do, not freak out about it even though he’s young. He’ll be really dangerous.”
The swing begins July 27-30 at the AFTCO Bassmaster Elite on Lake St. Clair, where Welcher finished 63rd in 2020. That event was before forward-facing sonar, although Welcher said for this story that doesn’t mean he’ll automatically catch them.
The second-to-last event is the Dakota Lithium Bassmaster Elite at Lake Champlain, Aug. 17-20. Welcher’s past finishes there were 85th in 2021 and 22nd in 2020, when he targeted largemouth, his plan this year. The season finale is the following week on the St. Lawrence River, where Welcher has been 60th, 85th and 24th.
Cobb, who led AOY for three events before Sabine, took 24th on St. Clair in 2020 and has finishes of 54th and 32nd on Champlain. Cobb has fished four Elites on the St. Lawrence, mixing in an 11th with three missed cuts.
“Cobb is obviously a good enough angler that he can win it and deserves to win it,” Palaniuk said. “Like you pointed out, up north has not been his strong suit.”
Cox vied for the 2020 Elite title on St. Clair before finishing third. At Champlain, Cox was 11th in the 2018 Open, 69th in the 2020 Elite and 22nd in 2021. His best Elite on the St. Lawrence was 49th, but he’s had success there in FLW competition.
“You can’t take him out of the mix,” Palaniuk said, “even though he’s a shallow water largemouth guy, he’s really good at catching smallmouth too.”
Rivet, who won the season-opener on Lake Okeechobee, has made one cut in his seven entries on the remaining lakes on the schedule, but his newfound expertise in forward-facing sonar might be a difference maker.
Palaniuk said Cook, who is 55 points back of Welcher, is within striking distance, especially considering his results on the fisheries. Cook was 26th on St. Clair in 2020, 21st in the Champlain Open then in Elites was 32nd in 2020 and 11th in 2021. In the past four events at the St. Lawrence, the fifth-year Elite posted a 35th, a 74th, a 24th and 22nd.
“He’s still figuring stuff out. He’s getting better and better every year,” Palaniuk said. “Those are finishes on bodies of water he probably hasn’t spent much time on. Now he has experience on those places.
“When you have finishes in the 20s like that, that can sometime be one or two catches away from a Top 10. You don’t know what happened. He could have lost a 5-pounder that could have been Top 10 finishes.”
Walters, 74 points back of the lead, is always dangerous, Palaniuk said. His results include a 44th on St. Clair, a 28th and seventh on Champlain and three missed cuts before a 12th on St. Lawrence last year.
“I think he’s another one that up north smallmouth have kind of been his archnemesis,” Palaniuk said. “I feel like he has dialed that in more and more. Forward-facing sonar and smallmouth kind of go like peanut butter and jelly, so I would say he’s pretty dang good at that, which is definitely going to help him.”
After Walters, it gets tougher to make up ground, having to produce great finishes while the rest falter.
“If you’re further back, you have to have everything go right for you to be able to win,” Palaniuk said. “You get to a certain point gap, you can control what you can control, but multiple guys would have to struggle.”
That would be Palaniuk’s hope to join the uber exclusive club of winners with three or more AOYs. He would need some luck and a run like Johnston made late last year.
Entering the final three events, Johnston was 12th, 129 points behind Palaniuk. With three Top 10 finishes, including two runners-up, Johnston cut the gap – he even held the BassTrakk points lead in the season finale on the Mississippi River – before ending up third, 23 points back.
As many in the field gain experience on northern fisheries, Welcher said he thinks there may be seven or eight who could win, more if things get “crazy.” Finishing 30 or more spots ahead of the contenders in all three final events is an ambitious proposition. Yet, as Johnston showed, it is possible to make a big move.
In any case, Palaniuk sees a fantastic finish.
“All of those guys within 60 points have a legitimate shot to win,” Palaniuk said. “It all will come down to who can handle it mentally. From here on out, the last three events, AOY will get won from the mental side.”
Palaniuk explained again that he hasn’t looked at points since 2014 because an angler can get too caught up in counting them. He’s taken the approach of catching as much as he can and letting the chips fall.
“It ends up altering your decision-making process,” he said. “Even if you say it’s not going to, guys will look and try to figure out the minimum they need to win.
“When you shoot for the minimum, one fish comes off or one fish gets stuck in your livewell divider (his nod to losing at Lay Lake), something, and you don’t win. You never want to be making decisions to catch just the minimum. You need to try to catch as much as you can catch every day.”
The $100,000 prize for winning Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year might pale compared to the $300,000 for winning a Bassmaster Classic, but many anglers say an AOY is more prestigious.
“You don’t get lucky and win AOY over an entire season of nine events across the country,” Palaniuk said. “All those guys who have shot know what they need to do, now whether or not they’re able to do it is the real kicker.
“This is probably one of the hardest years to pick somebody, like this guy has the best shot. My gut still leads to Cook and Welcher.”